RE:VERB EIGHTEEN / READ / Mishpatim
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
February 19, 2009
"Where they burn books, they will also burn people." Heinrich Heine, the Jewish-German author wrote this famous line in his 1821 play ‘Almansor’ –referring to the burning of the Q’uran during the Spanish Inquisition. A century later – Heine’s books, among many other Jewish books both sacred and secular, were burnt in Berlin’s public squares and his kin, also, exterminated by the Nazis.
I don’t think there are any books by Heine in the Valmadonna Trust Library Exhibit of rare Jewish books that is on display this week at Sotheby’s New York – but this incredible private collection of some 11,000 books and manuscripts, up for sale at a beginners’ bid of 40 million dollars, does bear witness to the sagas of many burnings, and persecutions and exiles–both of books and people. But that is not the real story here – the real story here is that of the triumph of the book – the passion for the transmission of the Word. This is a passion I know something about, and I guess it’s hereditary. In my quick one week work trip in NYC I’ve come to the exhibit as often as possible – inspired intellectually and emotionally, moved by the intense reactions of others around me.
Passion is a word that is often associated with collectors –and the man who is responsible for this fantastic collection – my uncle Jack – is a good example for zealous passion. Jack Lunzer– one of my mother’s siblings (My late Uncle Henry, about whom I wrote here a few weeks ago, was #2 of 8 siblings, Jack is #7, my mother, Joan, is #8) has always been the colorful one, the fabulous and eccentric uncle. He’d come visit us in Israel, or we’d visit him in London, and he always wore Safari suits (he did a lot of business in Africa) and always talked about the books. His collection of rare Jewish books was his favorite topic of conversation and his main thing in life. I remember Passover Seders with him at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem – he’d bring different copies of rare Hagaddahs and would pass them around, carefully. Visiting his home in London was always an adventure – on the way to the kitchen I’d pause in one of the parlors or hallways to take out some random tome and delve in. There were books everywhere. His was a contagious passion. By the time I was fifteen I was so taken by his love of books that I decided to become a librarian. I spent the next few years in Jewish libraries (let’s be honest here – I was totally BORED by Talmud study in my various Yeshivas, cut classes, and started delving into Jewish history and literature via the books – this was my only way out – or, rather - in.) I even went to a few auctions with him and became obsessed with knowing all there is to know about the history of Jewish books. In time, my interest changed – from the object – the book itself– to the subject matter – what the books were about. But my first love was the object – the older, rarer, and more unique – the better. To this day, thanks to Uncle Jack’s inspiration – I find old books irresistible.
It’s curious that the passion for the books –that of the thousands of people who flocked to Sotheby’s this week – isn’t so much for the content –but for the context – what these books represent. These rare ‘things’ tell the history of the transmission of literacy, become portals for the big story of Jewish life and for the bigger picture of human survival. These books became a way to make sense of our stories – as individuals and as families, and tribes, and communities. Getting lost inside a book is one way of finding one’s self. Getting lost inside a Jewish sacred book or a Jewish library is the way to find one’s connection to this baffling and fantastic thing called Jewish identity. Maybe that’s why the 10th floor at Sotheby’s has been packed with so many eager viewers. Uncle Jack – rather tired at 84, surrounded by some of his protective daughters and grandchildren (Hi, Carolyn!) and dressed very elegantly in tweeds (no safari suits anymore) received visitors like the royalty he always wanted to become. (For the record, he IS the Count of Valmadonna – a sleepy town in Italy that is somehow associated with his late wife’s family. As a property owner there he got the title too. Fun! As a kid I loved boasting that my uncle is a count. But he really wanted a British knighthood and almost got it after the famous Talmud deal with Westminster Abbey in 1980. Oh well, he may not get to be Sir Jack after all.) At Sotheby’s this past weekend he was mobbed by people asking him for autographs and though he grumbled, I think he loved it. And I think they wanted it because they too got infected by his passion for the books and for what the books represent – a peek into eternity, a sense of what it really means to be ‘the people of the book’.
Curiously, the passion for reading a book actually begins in this week’s installment of the Torah – the Five Books of Moses that serve as the heart and soul of Jewish literature and can be found in many extraordinary forms in the Valmadonna library.
There are different and contrasting descriptions of what exactly happened at Mount Sinai and what accounted for the Revelation. This week’s version, found at the end of the Torah portion called ‘Mishpatim’ gives the most robust account of literacy in making – Moses is both writing – and reading out loud – the words of the Covenant between the Divine author and the first generation of readers – or rather – listeners. This is the first time in the Torah that the act of reading aloud – ceremonially – from a written text is mentioned. It is, thus, the beginning of the story of how we read our story.
“And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that God has spoken will we do, and obey.' (Exodus, 24:7)
The 40 million dollar question is, of course, what IS that mysterious ‘Book of the Covenant’? It can’t be the Book of the Torah itself because it’s still happening as he reads it– so was there a book that is now lost? A lost scroll? Is this an allusion to the Ten Commandments? Or is this a metaphorical description of the moment in which our ancestors actually became the People of the Book?
The actual object may never be an actual item on display but the story lives on, live and inspiring – the human adventure of reading begun.
This past Saturday, sitting at the back of Congregation B’nai Jeshrun on the Upper West Side with two-year-old Alice on my lap, I held open a copy of the Torah and carefully read chapter 24 in Exodus. Alice pointed a finger at the words, looked at me with furrowed brow and said ‘Read! Book!’
So there you have it, from Moses, to Uncle Jack, to little Alice – the tree of knowledge that sprouted in Genesis keeps growing. The walls of Sotheby’s gallery bear witness to this noble tradition of reading: “Make books your companions” read the words of the 12th-century Spanish Jewish scholar, Judah Ibn Tibbon. “Let your bookshelves be your gardens.”